As a final Mother’s Day gift, Bo handled the kids so I could go to the Olbrich Gardens in Madison and spend some time by myself—sort of. The place was packed for poetry and graduation photos. Still, I spent over an hour speaking to no one, which, as a mother, was AMAZING.
Originally, I had planned on taking my mother, her sister, and Blondie to the Gardens on Mother’s Day. When my aunt declined, my mother decided we shouldn’t bother. “Nothing will be growing anyway,” she said with a sniff at our home’s lackadaisical attempt at landscaping.
To a degree, I can see she’s right: many of the blooms remain closed against Wisconsin’s temperamental spring. The green is bright, a true spring green, the kind of green that mothers know well as “baby vomit a la pois” (with peas). The color I do find is luminescent against the green foliage and uncertain sunshine.
These flowers linger in their transition, eager for the warmer season.
I, too, linger in transition.
“You need to stop living a duplicitous lifestyle,” my therapist says. “Be authentic. You can’t heal until you let yourself come together.”
I nod, shake off the tears. Inside I wince at the word “duplicitous.”
Duplicitous. It sounds…evil. Dark. Full of wicked intentions under a happy mask.
A mask I’ve worn for many, many years.
I have always lived the public life, the Good Girl of the Pastor’s Family, the Perfect Daughter who plays in church and sings in the choir and does all her work and plays all the sports and helps at the nursing home and does and does and DOES
The mask grew with me, the Good Girl who gets the scholarship and goes to school and works the jobs and gets the grades and works and works and WORKS until she’s married, and a Good Wife, and a Good Mother, who fulfills all the family needs and cleans up the vomit and teaches online while two boys suckle at her breasts and sings with her daughter and cooks for the husband and hosts the holiday parties and does and does and DOES
All this fills the Outer Life, the Out Here that sees the mask, assumes all is well, and carries on.
Had my original plan worked, and I had come here for Mother’s Day, I could have witnessed my daughter’s delight as we stroll through shower after shower of white and pink petals. Too late—the petals wilt on the dirt like false snow for a performance. A fairy’s dance in a ballet, perhaps. Every bridge, trellis, archway of crossed branches feels like a portal to Elsewhere Fantastic, Anywhere But Where I Am.
I have written before of my draw to portals (“The Forgotten Portal“) and forest paths (“My Narnia“). Of course many writers are enticed by such things. But this bridge, that arch, mean more than fantasy.
They mark a fresh route of escape, a hiding place from what I am told is the only true way to heal:
To face myself, and The Monster who made me this way.
My Inside Life is very different.
In Here are worlds strange and complete, peopled by beloved characters real and created. My worlds are bridged by lightning and rainbows. Every world has an evil, and a good, and the evil never quite goes away, but hope never stops fighting, either. In Here, my soul found sanctuary against The Monster, and forged walls with my confusion, pain, and fear. Tears hissed on the hot metal. The walls locked the poisonous secrets away, protected my worlds. My soul learned to thrive in pieces.
It never occurred to me my soul could be anything but broken.
I thought my walls impenetrable, but then Jason Voorhees arrived with motherhood, and my walls were nicked, hacked, and finally breached (“The Machete and the Cradle“).
Motherhood does that: exposes old childhood fears. Nightmares you realize you lived, that you never, ever want to touch your children. Three lives have grown in me, and now grow in walls I help keep clean of strawberry jam and yogurt. Their souls burn so bright around me, I have a hard time believing a broken soul such as mine could have had a hand in their becoming. But then I think of my daughter’s age, my own age when The Monster came, and I run away to retch.
Words are themselves duplicitous. They free and bind us, all at once.
Each word is wrapped so tightly in connotation and presumption that we never quite see how our individual connections alter their power. Maybe we are all too eager to wear that “Proud Mommy” shirt. We don’t know how to remove the “daughter” apron strings that our mothers have knotted around our necks. Other people are “victims,” but not us. Not us, we’re not like them. What happened back then, everyone goes through that. That wasn’t “abuse.” That was normal. That was how things were. What’s abuse, anyway? Everyone went through it, it’s life, it’s in the past, it doesn’t really matter because it’s all back there and not up here and the past doesn’t matter grow up be good be GOOD
I watch a robin wash itself in one of the many waterfalls in the garden. All the creatures here have evolved to not fear people at all; birds nest right next to paths, chipmunks practically run over my feet as they find new patches to dig. Even the bees don’t give a toss, humming along as they weave among the open blooms they find and return to their hives along the Gardens’ perimeter. The numerous couples—hand in hand, a few feet apart, the boy purse trolley for the girl photographer—have a bad habit of posing right where I wish to shoot, be it bridges or waterfalls, but for once, I am alone. The robin takes one look at me, looks up at the sun (likely a bird’s version of an eye roll—“bloody tourists”), and goes back to bathing. The wings make a muted splash of soft, sparkled droplets. Bathing twin boys has made me forget one can splash without sending a gallon of water out of the tub.
The robin reminds me of a memoir promoted on a blog I follow about author Zoe Zolbrod coming to terms with her past as a victim of abuse. How she has shared it in her own way over the years, and how it has helped shape her life.
I find a gateway formed by a treebranch and leave for another garden.
The Rose Tower feels like a good sanctuary, despite the children pounding on its floorboards. Clouds pass over then, and the cold stone of the tower’s room, with its four arches to four different gardens, feels like a crossing to other worlds.
Do I hide?
No. My children cannot afford for me to lock myself away in tears and darkness.
Do I go on as before, broken but functional?
No. I am exhausted by the forced smiles to cover the isolation and pain. My children need a mother, not a mask.
Do I bring my writing self and my real self together?
I…I don’t know. This scares me, truly, for my writing, my worlds, have always been a sanctuary. The only member of my family who understood writing’s pleasure died two years ago, and even he didn’t understand why I couldn’t write about the goodness of Jesus and a happy Christian life.
Do I bring my past self and my writing self together?
This does seem to be the arch I take, doesn’t it? Here are the words as proof. I have written “victim,” and know I write about me. I have written of fear. Of pain.
But somewhere in all this, I wrote of hope, too. Of a soul.
If I want to write, really write, I cannot use a mask and call it a character. Characters are beings of bodies and souls. They have their own reasons to hide or fight.
The only way one create a complete person to inhabit a complete world is to make oneself complete.
My feet crunch upon the gravel. Out Here, among the pools and walkways, I search for the path that turns widdershins and guides me back into myself, to my soul.
To a fighter.